*My classmates in group 2 had a good laugh when, after everyone in our fifth-grade class finished pulling names out of a box, they learned I’d be exchanging Christmas gifts with Nathaniel Brunswick.
They used to tease Lil’ Nate, as he was called in the neighborhood, for his b.b. buckshot naps and a tendency toward oversized clothes, the result of sharing a tattered wardrobe with seven older brothers and sisters. Miss Florence, Nate’s hardworking mom and a single parent, squeezed her family into a small ramshackle two-bedroom home just off Eighth Street on Oklahoma City’s black East Side, not far from where I lived.
The slight, soft-spoken Nate stayed to himself, but was funny and inquisitive if you got to know him. A fast runner, during gym period everyone wanted him on their relay team. Otherwise, he was mostly on his own.
According to Mrs. Long, our teacher, the gift-giving would take place in shifts: One week, half the class would give gifts; the next week the givers would be on the receiving end.
“You not gon’ get nothin’ from Nate,” Charles Whitmore declared, laughing. “His family is so poor they eatin’ bread and water.”
“No, he’ll get something,” disagreed Clara Parkins, sounding sympathetic before busting up with, “He’ll get somebody’s hand-me-downs!”
I chuckled with them, but it wasn’t funny. I wasn’t thinking about Nate, who sat back in group 3 with more than a notion we were discussing him; I was worried how it would look to the class if I didn’t get anything.
“That’s not your problem,” Mama said that evening as she prepared dinner. “You just do your part.” She told me to go get her purse, then reached into it for some money and dispatched me to TG&Y around the corner.
After playing with my share of merchandise in the toy section, I remembered Nate speaking proudly about his “Invisible Daddy,” as Whitmore used to taunt–a man who seldom came around but whom Nate loved to recall drove a “cherry red Chevy Impala. With Skirts.” I settled on just such a model car–a ’65 Chevy Impala–and a tube of glue.
Mama wrapped the five-dollar gift to look like a million bucks, her craftsmanship ignored Friday morning by Nate as he quickly tore open the package at this desk. Trying not to blush only makes the emotion more pronounced. From my desk I could see Nate mouthing “Impala” to himself as he examined all sides of the box, checking out the pictures.
At school, Nate’s gratitude was cordial. However, when Miss Florence called to thank Mama, she described a child in a state of rapture. She said Nate planned to assemble the car and present it to the Invisible Daddy. “You’d think we gave that boy a bicycle,” Mama remarked, as she hung up the phone. My gingerly inquiring whether Miss Florence had mentioned a gift for me only instigated a scolding. “Stevie, they barely got money for food,” Mama said. Let’s just be happy you could give.”
I sought solace in Mama’s words as I moped into Mrs. Long’s class the following Friday, to no avail. It wasn’t about a present, really. I simply didn’t want to come up empty in front of my friends. I ventured to the gift table with the rest of them purely as a contrived show of faith. But there, in the center of the table, wrapped as if it were worth a million bucks, was a package with my name on it.
After defiantly waving it in the faces of Whitmore and Parkins, I went to my desk and tried to be cool as I tore through Santa Claus wrapping. Inside a shoe box, newspaper stuffing parted to reveal a toy car. Not any car–a model Impala, assembled so seamlessly that it seemed held together not by glue, but love. In the box was a note written in typical fifth-grade scribble: DeAr StePhen. I PainTed It Red. I Hope YOu LikE Red. MeRRy ChriSTmas NaThANiel BruNsWicK.”
While my friends oohed and aahed, I looked over my shoulder at Nate. He kept his eyes straight ahead at first, ignoring me until I made his eyes find mine. I smiled and held up the red Impala, and he returned a smile that was wide and proud. And just a little pained.
That evening, Mama and I bundled up and walked the few blocks to Nate’s house to return the red Impala. I didn’t see why I had to give it back, but she mentioned something about a lesson in it all that I wouldn’t truly grasp until later in life.
Mama was right. Today, I still remember the excited, astonished smile on Nate’s face when he peeped out the window of his home to see me standing under the porch light, clutching the shoe box. Giving has a certain power about it.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].